A friend’s therapist once suggested that she consider becoming Episcopalian. Wouldn’t that be so much easier than wrestling with all her Catholic angst?
This suggestion made me think about the many misconceptions and stereotypes surrounding religious faith — and, maybe especially, religious conversion. No metaphor can really capture the wild variety of conversion experiences (and, of course, “cradle Catholics” often have their own conversion stories, their own stories of being shaken and reshuffled by God), but here are six images that may usefully combat some myths of conversion.
1: Falling in love. Love isn’t chosen. Love can push us past respectability. Love teaches us about ourselves, and about the world. Love is necessary to human existence. Love is humiliating and exalting at the same time. Love is — one hopes — about adoration of the beloved, not the self-image of the lover. Love will break your heart.
2: Discovering your long-lost mother. In this metaphor you find out new facts about the world, not solely about yourself. You gain information. And yet this information implies obligations. You longed for her, and now she’s here . . . and maybe you have to take her in, or pay her debts, or learn to put up with her querulous tirades. In some way you must sacrifice for her.
3: Unwanted pregnancy. The “falling in love” metaphor is certainly biblical — His banner over me was love — but it might be too gentle; even the lost-mother metaphor may be too gentle. For many people, Catholic conversion is as shocking and devastating as the moment when that second line appears on the little white plastic test. It’s something that happens to you, not something you choose; it’s even something you’d reject outright if you could.
Unwanted pregnancy imposes obligations. It’s generally the result of actions we took, never intending the result. It’s a source of intense suffering and humiliation — and yet, when the child is born, it’s very often a source of joy.
It’s something we often think we can’t afford.
4: Philosophy. The problem with the metaphors that stress the unchosen aspect of conversion is that they can make it sound like what you need to do, if you want to find God, is simply wander around waiting to be struck by lightning. Pray, go to church, but mostly wait for the experience that will dissolve your doubts.
But, in fact, if you are “seeking,” you might be best served by doing philosophy. Find a community or a group of friends with whom you can fruitfully argue; take the Symposium, not the Song of Songs, as your guide. Examine the ground you stand on: What do you definitely believe? What are the consequences of those beliefs? Perhaps the most fruitful path is to examine your moral beliefs: What do you believe to be absolutely, unshakably wrong or right? And now, what kind of anthropology would be necessary for those beliefs to be true? What kind of metaphysics would be necessary to support that anthropology? Do not do this alone. Do it with friends. Loving friendship is the irreplaceable foundation of philosophy.
Accepting a conclusion of philosophy is not the same as encountering the living God. But it is like that encounter, insofar as it can be the result of philosophical seeking. It is something you can work hard to find, and yet when you find it, it reshapes you. Philosophy, taken seriously, makes you change your life. But it’s easy to understand that philosophy is a practice over the long term, not an unexpected epiphany.
Love of God is recognition; it’s homecoming after exile. But I also love the book The Last Unicorn, in which men have lost the ability to recognize unicorns: They see the unicorn, but think only that she’s a white mare. We must be prepared for recognition.
5: The mask that sinks into the skin. Or, as your mom told you, “Your face’ll freeze that way!”
Lots of people convert for inadequate or actively bad reasons. They want security, they want a strange accessory, they want to be like other Catholics, or they want to be unique (or both). Few of us convert for entirely defensible reasons uncolored by familial drama or concern for self-image.
I know I don’t stay Catholic for the same reasons that I converted. Most people don’t, I think.
And so the people who mock Catholic converts for their (often transparent) desire to be outre, to be extreme, to be right are missing the point. Live with the mask and it will sink into your skin. Don’t wear it if you don’t want your face to change. But also, don’t assume that every mask is just a facade. People choose their masks. If you think a convert has become Catholic solely as a mask, you still should ask yourself: Why did he choose this mask when he could’ve chosen another?
6: The leap of faith. There are many problems with the “leap” metaphor. It seems to make faith anti-rational and self-chosen, a form of self-expression rather than assent.
But I think for many people there does come a moment when we choose to do our doubting and our fussin’ and our fightin’ from within the Church, not from outside. We haven’t settled all our arguments with God yet — but we know we need to harangue Him while kneeling before the altar.
How did we make that decision? I expect it varies. For me, it was a matter of trust that I expressed in roughly philosophical terms: I was more sure that the Catholic Church had authority to teach me than I was sure that contraception or gay sex were okay. For others, trust may manifest in different ways: A friend suggested, acutely, that we may become Catholic when we start to see God as “a worthy opponent” — we can fight, but when He beats us, we’ll accept that we got beaten.
Every conversion is different, like every saint — like every person. Every conversion is a prism with a hundred facets. Our love of God is always polysemic, and when we try to discuss it, our own experiences shiver out of our hands like a wineglass breaking.
And yet we have to try. I hope these images will at least help us combat some fallacies about our love.